from ’empires of food’ – a small note on high-yield seeds

i received empires of food: feast, famine, and the rise and fall of civilizations by evan fraser and andrew rimas for the holidays and am so far enjoying it quite a bit.

one passage, in particular, seemed worth repeating, as it relates to the long-run effects of short-run “poverty fixes” that are in vogue.

on p 27 and 28, they note:

“modern plant breeding involves crossing very specific ‘parents’ to create high-yielding ‘offspring.’ these fruitful results are called hybrids. but they have a serious limitation… the seeds produced when two high-yielding hybrids pair up are thin, low-yielding duds. there’s no point in saving seeds to plant for the next season, since the happy combination of genes that made the hybrids so valuable can’t be inherited. farmers must, therefore, buy new seeds from the seed companies every year…. aren’t the fatter harvests worth it? perhaps. but while the hybrids have given the world astounding bounty, they’re especially tempting for opportunistic spores and beetles. to grow so inflated, too, they need extra nutrients and water. they can’t survive a drought and their appetite for minerals degrades the soil.

nor do the seeds come cheap – most farmers, especially those in [developing countries], construct precarious towers of debt to pay for each season’s update. farmers who plant a high-yielding seed accept a gamble. they know their harvests will dramatically improve but they also understand they could bet away the farm should bugs or the weather wreck the crop… to off-set the chance of catastrophe, farmers indebt themselves to buy not only miracle seeds but modern fertilizers and pesticides – almost always manufactured by the same companies that sell the seeds… small-scale farmers find themselves on a treadmill, so it’s not surprising many of them want to step off.”

then, on p 89 and 90, they make some additional points that sound mighty familiar if you have read the omnivore’s dilemma or follow mark bittman.

“the [first] lesson is that farms should mimic nature. too many nutrients in the soil cause water pollution, too few mean degradation, so the sustainable farmer balances them by rotating crops, planting diverse flora, and slicing up the land with hedgerows and studding it with trees. such a farmer plants perennials that keep roots in the soil throughout the year and s/he pastures livestock on fallow ground. second, sustainable farms use muscle instead of machines… to follow both of these rules, farmers have to accept the third: sell local… if we obeyed the lessons of history, we’d shuffle our crops, clip the length of our trade routes, store more food, and politely ask people to move away from our metropolises.”

experiments (e.g. (which does take some account of soil degradation) or here) with seeds, fertilizer, credit constraints, timing, and behavioral studies are cool and all – but what exactly are the small farmers buying into by participating while we learn about procrastination and the limits of human rationality as measured by profit maximization? what happens when experiments are only run for a short time and then stopped, but farmers have already bought high-yielding seeds? could we instead be helping with easing into more sustainable cropping patterns?


carols and shanties

there’s someone else out there (actually, several people, it would seem) that enjoy both re-writing song lyrics and pirates.

if you are so inclined, she invites you to add to the songs:


dear sir – response to AMFm article in the economist

on 24 novemberthis article was published in the economist on AMFm and the Global Fund. below is the response i would have liked to have published because a few things in the article were maddening. particularly frustrating are those celebrating the end of AMFm as though ending a subsidy on ACTs in the private sector are the same thing as removing ACTs from the private sector. it’s not. so far as i know, we have not yet heard whether pharmaceutical companies intend to keep their ACT prices low, in order to tap into the non-premium market uncovered in AMFm. in any case, malaria programs moving forward need to address the reality of treatment-seeking behavior and expectations for fever in the wake of AMFm. 

‘Sir – At least two things on the horizon for malaria treatment – for both the Global Fund and the larger global health community – are not cloudy in the dust of the Affordable Medicines Facility–malaria (AMFm). Yet these points remain under-discussed.

First, the end of the AMFm subsidy for malaria treatment does not eliminate the obligation to scale-up malaria and broader fever diagnosis in both the private and public sectors. The globally recommended treatment for malaria – ACTs – are legally available over-the-counter in three of the seven countries that piloted AMFm. This includes Nigeria, which accounts for one-quarter of global malaria deaths. It also includes Ghana and Uganda.

Even where citizens cannot legally access ACTs over-the-counter, they can often obtain these treatments as easily as if the laws supported such access. Unless the global discussion shifts to changing and enforcing national drug regulations – which it has not – we need to continue talking about scaling-up diagnosis at the gamut of fever-treatment points. This remains the case with or without a subsidy.

Second, it is a false dichotomy that aid money be directed to either a drug subsidy or a community health worker (CHW) effort. Instead, we need to discuss how to apply lessons from successful CHW programs to the variety of workers on the front-lines of treating fevers. Again, those in both the private and public sectors who are, in reality, treating fevers. Researchers working with community health workers suggest that, where in place, CHWs can appropriately distinguish and treat fevers, as well as encourage their charges to complete treatment. However, the CHW model has not proved viable in each context it has been tried. As such, not every malaria-burdened country has trained, scaled-up, and maintained CHWs, despite attempts since the late 1970s. We need to discuss the current realities of safely treating fevers in countries shouldering malaria burdens in order to develop both short- and long-term plans.

order, power, and the importance of history – hitler in india

here’s a topic i‘ve discussed in passing for the past five years and now i suppose it is time to write on it. this article just came out, covering, roughly, hitler, gandhi, and bal thackarey in indian political discussion. i am not entirely certain of article’s claims on the extent to which admiration of hitler and dissatisfaction with gandhi are part of the same conversation. or, how much of either can be attributed to thackerey. but i have certainly witnessed both the admiration and the dissatisfaction bits. i defer to maximum city on thackerey. i leave the consideration of gandhi and the birth-rupture of the indian nation-state for others.

when i first moved to chennai, i was fairly surprised to see copies of mein kampf available for sale on the streets. this sight, in turn, heightened my surprise when speaking with even well-educated indians who had never heard of judiasm (by the way, trying to use ‘you know how buddha was a hindu…’ doesn’t quite work to explain the old testament and jesus).

this ‘what are jews?’ point is disturbing for two at least two reasons.

first, india is home to several important and old jewish communities, including in kerala and in bombay (the latter were not missed by the perpetrators of the 26 November attacks in bombay). in one of my favorite books, (indian) author amitav ghosh feels a connection with an indian slave of a jewish businessman in in an antique land, placing jews in this historical context of ancient trading between india and the mediterranean. judiasm is a part of indian history and people not knowing it points to a deeper problem in awareness about ‘others’ and even ‘self.’

second, further, this point suggests large omissions in the global history taught in schools and popularly known. actually, not just global history, but indian history as well, since subhas chandra bose reached out to, and was rebuffed by, hitler to help with independence from the british. for all of hitler’s mis/use of aryan mythology, he didn’t actually seem to think all that highly of the people of the subcontinent. one might think that sort of insult would stick.

(third, the experimentation under the nazis is a key driver of research ethics today, which is yet another avenue to learn about some of the horrors in the holocaust.)

overlooking a relatively small religious group isn’t the only aberration i’ve found – also, not having heard of poland or proclaiming that south indians are the darkest-skinned people on earth or proclaiming complete ignorance (and lack of curiousity) about the beliefs of one’s muslim next-door neighbors. again, among people with master’s degrees.

to be honest, i was surprised that the students mentioned by dilip d’souza knew hitler had committed mass, systematic murder. in my experience talking with (some! only some!)  folks in india, many admire hitler and stalin (even naming children after them) in a way completely devoid of context. as far as i can tell, they see power, authority, oratory, and the ability to impose order without knowing anything of the whole ‘invading poland’ and ‘final solution’ bits. which is precisely what makes it all alarming.

it seems to be part of a craving for order and power that makes people name children after stalin, admire hitler, and proclaim that things would be better if india were more like singapore. a problem with this is that these longings seem divorced from history and context as evidenced, in part, by never having heard of ‘jews.’ it’s kind of hard to imagine what sort of instruction could teach about hitler without mentioning jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and so on. (yes, i know that sexuality and homosexuality in india are whole other cans of worms.)

of course, trying to cross the street in india – and seeing the messiness and corruption of democracy everywhere – everyone has an occasional longing for someone to impose order. the impulse for a philosopher-king, or a benevolent dictator, or someone to nicely just make decisions and get things done have been popular in the past and even now. but, as churchill said, democracy is still the best thing going given the options. sen has certainly commented on the non-need of strong-arm values to bring about development in asia and elsewhere.

democracy relies on having informed citizens – a civil civil society (e.g. here and one of my favorite diatribes, toward the end, here). has done since rome. will always do. this suggests we all have a resposibility in being informed and helping to inform.

in india, in the US, in a lot of places, we need to do better with our history, current affairs, and civics lessons. incomplete histories are dangerous things. it is not just those who don’t learn their history that are condemned to repeat it but also those who half-learn their history.

history is full of imperfect people that can teach us both how we should do things and how not to do things. we should know about both sides of past leaders. in the US ,we may largely equate hitler with evil and the fight against him as the last war we so clearly had a moral obligation to fight. anne frank is more or less required reading and we’ve seen cabaret or life is beautiful (the latter i had to watch before heading off to undergrad). this can make it all the more alarming when we hear people praise hitler or the nazi movement more generally.

some of the horrors of nazi germany may not seem so singular to those in colonies more recently gaining their independence. with good reason, and as we all should, people in india and elswhere learn and feel that the brits and americans have been plenty destructive in their own ways. this is certainly true. but hitler is a long way past imperfect and destructive. anyone looking to praise his oratory and authority needs to be fully cognizant of that.

(small addendum, 19 july 2013:

(19 feb 2014: from @urmy_shukla: as she notes, strangely written but gets at the odd trend, which was yet again a topic of conversation following someone pulling out a swastik-ed bandana this weekend at ragasthan.)